Wednesday 30 July 2014

The Second Best Red Bean Porridge in Seoul (서울서둘째로잘하는집)

When M & D travel, they're extraordinarily good at stumbling upon tiny hole-in-the-wall gems of places, particularly little cafés. I've benefited from this innate skill of theirs enormously, whether we're exploring a place together for the first time, or when they decide to bring me along for a return visit to places they'd previously chanced upon and fell in love with. From day one of this trip to Seoul, they kept telling me "We're going to bring you somewhere really special for red bean porridge!", so I was naturally quite excited to follow them to trendy Samcheong-dong (삼청동) where the café was located. We hiked there from Anguk Station, following hordes of well-heeled people who descended on the artsy neighbourhood to see and be seen. 

Walking down Samcheong-ro

What we hadn't expected, was for Bingo (빙고) to be closed that evening. The owner put up a sign that cooly said "Gone for summer vacation". M and D, who'd first tasted Bingo's hand-made sweet red bean porridge, or Danpatjuk (단팥죽), the previous winter, were absolutely distraught. Bingo's Danpatjuk was unlike anything they'd ever tried before, and they hadn't been able to get over the silky-smooth texture or rich flavor, so different from Singapore's watery red bean soups. Thankfully though, their travel luck soon kicked in. We'd return to Samcheongdong later in our trip to visit Bingo for some enjoyable Pat Bing Soo (팥빙수) and Pat Bing Soo with Fruits (과일빙수), both perfect for warding off the summer heat, but on that evening fate had decreed we were to discover an even better Danpatjuk instead. 

Unlike the rest of the buzzing shopfronts, the tea-house lacked embellishment - no loud signs to announce their presence, no staff hollering out onto the street. We'd have walked right past it, if not for eagle-eyed D, who spotted a family by the window, huddled around a single bowl of Danpatjuk. We later came to understand that we'd "discovered" Seoureseo Duljjaero Jalhaneunjip (서울서둘째로잘하는집), which translates to "The Second Best in Seoul", an institution that's been around since 1976. For all the modesty of its name, the tea-house is a frequently mentioned must-visit location in guidebooks covering Seoul, which we'd neglected to read. Inside, it was clean but homely, and you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd been transported back to the previous century on stepping in. Steel-haired ladies ran the small open kitchen with brisk efficiency, standing over steaming pots and stirring them constantly. Looking at them was like watching my grandmother cook, and we instantly felt quite at home. 

At all the other tables, couples and families were sharing the generous bowls of Danpatjuk, and when I suggested we do the same, M and D looked at me with matching looks of horror and outrage. 

It's red bean porridge, they said to me, in a scandalized tone that effectively conveyed the fact that they were, under no circumstances, going to do anything so silly as share their precious bowls of porridge, and why couldn't I just do the obviously sane thing and get my own?

In the end, we looked so greedy compared to everyone else there, but it was definitely the right choice in getting one bowl of porridge each. At 7000 won a bowl, it's definitely on the pricier end of patjuks, but so, so worth it. 

Laden with pine nuts, chestnuts, ginko nuts, red beans and a brilliantly velvety piece of glutinous rice cake, it was a masterfully executed dish. The red bean porridge itself was a thick but clump-free liquid, salty-sweet and elevated by a dash of cinnamon that gave it great depth of flavour. Some people reckon that Danpatjuk is heavy enough to be a meal on its own. Even though it was the middle of summer and we ate it right after a massive Korean Barbeque dinner, every bite was delicious instead of overwhelming, and we scraped our bowls clean. 

The Second Best in Seoul was originally opened to serve traditional Korean medicinal teas, which probably explains why their sweet red bean porridge still tasted so healthy and wholesome. We also tried their Sujeonggwa (수정과), a cinnamon punch cooked with dried persimmon. It was very interesting, but I can also see why most visitors just ordered the Danpatjuk. 

Even better than Bingo's, M and D decided. Possibly the best they'd ever tried in the world. Now, whenever we discuss travelling back to Seoul, one caveat is making sure we have enough time to return for more of this amazing Danpatjuk. 

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